Approximately ten years after The Great Gatsby was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed in The Crack-Up that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” He then elaborated, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Fitzgerald went on to apply this “general observation” to his own life a decade earlier, that is, to the time when he would have been writing Gatsby:
Life, ten years ago, was largely a personal matter. I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to “succeed”—and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.
Fitzgerald was also explicit that at earlier points in his life, after personal failures and disappointments, he had come to feel that “there was a vast irresponsibility toward every obligation, a deflation of all my values. A passionate belief in order, a disregard of motives or consequences in favor of guesswork and prophecy, a feeling that craft and industry would have a place in any world…”
These remarks are important because of what they reveal about Fitzgerald’s own state of mind at various times in his life. They are also important, I believe, because they help illuminate Fitzgerald’s approach to the question of how the conscious individual comes to terms with the sense of hopelessness and human vulnerability that, in the case of The Great Gatsby, seems to be the product of anawareness of time’s movement, on the one hand, and the belief that the modern world provides neither order nor meaning, on the other hand. Even more specifically, as I will argue in the pages to follow, in Gatsby—as in the essays of The Crack-Up—Fitzgerald suggests that the conscious individual can function best if he or she can reconcile and accept “opposed ideas.” Within the novel, these “opposed ideas” are embodied in a series of paradoxes.
Fitzgerald, of course, is not alone among modern writers to explore these concerns; quite the contrary. The question of how to live in the face of time’s movement is age-old, and the more modern dilemma of how to find meaning in a world that seems to have become a moral and spiritual wasteland informs much of twentieth-century fiction. But what makes Fitzgerald’s treatment of such questions in The Great Gatsby especially interesting is that, unlike many modern novelists, he does not offer action, social responsibility, consciousness, or even art itself as an appropriate response (in this regard, it is interesting to note that the only character in the novel with artistic aspirations is the ineffectual photographer, Mr. McKee.) Nor does Fitzgerald create existential heroes who perform acts of social responsibility or who find happiness and self-definition in consciousness itself. He also does not create characters who cope with time and the modern world by confronting death directly, seeking meaning in nature, or retreating altogether from the world of time, events, and the human community through suicide, madness, or exile.
The first of these paradoxes is that the major characters in the novel again and again embrace illusions that they know to be illusions in order to cope with their sense of hopelessness and vulnerability. The second paradox is that the illusions they embrace are rooted typically in their pasts, even though, as Nick Carraway knows and as many of the others so painfully come to understand, “‘You can’t repeat the past’” (p. 133). The final paradox is an outgrowth of the first two—that even as the novel makes it understandable why individuals would embrace such illusions, it also makes clear that such a choice is precarious at best because, in the face of time’s movement, human fragility, and a modern world that has become a moral and spiritual wasteland, such illusions will not suffice and in fact are likely to be destructive.
In a related matter, the novel’s major characters—Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick—quite deliberately assume roles and adopt gestures that they believe are consonant with the illusions they are embracing. All three, in fact, seem to define personality as “an unbroken series of successful gestures” (p. 2). They do so, I would argue, because all three have a passionate belief in order, despite their awareness that time inevitably brings unpredictable and personally threatening changes.
Ironically, this definition of personality as gesture itself contributes to making the world a dangerous place because it reduces human action to mere performance and people to simple players in a game. The implications of such a stance are, as Fitzgerald noted in The Crack-Up, to deflate values and to disregard motives and consequences. But just as The Great Gatsby dramatizes the devastation that can be wrought when illusions are cherished too long or are made the basis for action, so too does it point to the danger of valuing roles and gestures, however well crafted theymay be, at the expense of thought and feeling, of moral choice and moral action.
Early in the novel, Nick Carraway describes himself as being “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (p. 43). In that statement and others, Nick suggests his own deeply felt uncertainty about the nature of life’s possibilities. In some moments, he is hopeful about what the future might hold and is drawn to the excitement that accompanies change. In other moments, his awareness of human vulnerability overshadows his confidence in life’s promise, and so he retreats from whatever situation provokes his anxiety and unhappiness in an effort to exert control and establish a sense of order. That the world around him so often seems chaotic and the people he knows without purpose almost certainly contributes to his ambivalence.
Nick is not the only character in the novel who is conscious of the need to choose whether to be “within or without,” whether to embrace life or to try to control it. Gatsby and Daisy, at crucial moments in their lives, evidence a similar awareness and experience a similar ambivalence. All three also respond in the same way, by turning—deliberately and with full awareness—to illusions that they know to be illusions. Gatsby does so when he shapes for himself a new identity and then later when he makes Daisy the embodiment of his dream. Daisy makes similar choices when she marries Tom, not Gatsby, and then again when she abandons Gatsby in order to stay with her husband. And Nick embraces his own illusions when he decides, at the end of the novel, to return home to the Midwest of his childhood.
Nick, in fact, is explicit about how vulnerable people are when faced with a harsh reality that is unadorned by illusion. For example, when he imagines what Gatsby must have felt during the final hours of his life as he waited futilely for a phone call from Daisy, Nick thinks:
I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe [the phone call] would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true, he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have lookedup at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. (p. 194)
It is important to emphasize here that Fitzgerald’s major characters do not turn to illusions that are separate from the realities of their lives. Rather, the illusions or dreams that seem most vibrant to them are those that transform their everyday realities into something that seems either thrilling or meaningful. Thus, Gatsby’s dream turns the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock into the most important of his “enchanted objects” (p. 113). His dream also invests his life with meaning as Nick recognizes when he learns of Gatsby’s love for Daisy. As Nick describes the moment, “He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor” (p. 95).
As they embrace the various illusions that give shape to their lives, Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick increasingly and deliberately assume roles and adopt gestures that are outgrowths of their illusions. Daisy even goes so far as to value only gestures that are separate from emotion. At Gatsby’s party, she is appalled at the “raw vigor” of West Egg and sees as lovely only the pose of the movie star and her director. In Nick’s words, “the rest offended her—and inarguably, because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion” (p. 129).
For Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick, this turning to illusion and playing of roles is part of an attempt to recover the vibrancy and promise of their youth. Gatsby, for example, invents for himself an entirely new identity of just the sort “that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (p. 118), while Daisy’s vision of what her life should be has its origins in her “white girlhood” (p. 24). It is in fact this vision that leads her to marry Tom Buchanan, who can give her a $350,000 string of pearls, instead of waiting for Gatsby, who could offer her only love and hope.
Given the harshness of some of the realities of their adult lives (the war, for Nick and Gatsby; Gatsby’s loss of Daisy; and Daisy’s awareness of Tom’s extramarital affairs), such choices have a certain logic, for only in the innocence of youth were Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick able to have a sense of hope and of life’s promise. On the other hand, Nick suggests that even Gatsby, with his “romanticreadiness” and his “extraordinary gift for hope” (p. 2), knew from the beginning that whatever beliefs he created for himself were illusory. With a punning and ironic reference to Daisy Fay Buchanan’s maiden name, Nick suggests that Gatsby knew that the “promise” of his youthful reveries was “that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” (p. 119).
Gatsby’s turning to illusion is the most total of any character in the novel. He also, even more than Nick and Daisy, seems to believe that he can create a personality based on the values of American popular culture. Thus, at the age of seventeen, he defines for himself a completely new identity. As Nick puts it, “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his platonic conception of himself” (p. 118). To some extent, Gatsby transforms himself from Jimmy Gatz to Jay Gatsby because he was unhappy with his parents: In his imagination, he “had never really accepted them as his parents at all” (p. 118). But to an even greater extent, Gatsby hears “the drums of his destiny” (p. 119) as defined by a version of the American dream of success that applies to men. In fact, whereas most young men, according to Nick, in moments of “intimate revelation,” tell tales that are in reality “plagiaristic” (pp. 1-2), Gatsby goes a step further and actually lives out some of the myths of the culture.
In support of his new identity, Gatsby adopts what he believes are the appropriate mannerisms and surrounds himself with what he believes are the right props. He calls other men “Old Sport,” drives an expensive, fancy car, and lives in a mansion in West Egg, which, he tells Daisy, he keeps “‘always full of interesting people, night and day. People who do interesting things. Celebrated people’” (p. 109). He also goes to great lengths to create a sense of authenticity. As Owl-Eyes puts it when he discovers that the books in Gatsby’s library are real, “‘This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism!’” (p. 55).
Despite all his efforts, Gatsby’s mannerisms and props often fail, in great part because his dream lacks a moral sense. For instance, Gatsby has made his fortune outside of the law. He also has no compunction about associating with Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series and in so doing, in Nick’s words, played “with the faith of fifty million people” (p. 88). As importantly, Gatsby’s dream also lacks an aesthetic sense. The universe that he creates first in his imagination and then later and in reality in West Egg is one of “ineffable gaudiness,” (p. 119), the beauty he commits himself to serving is “vast, vulgar, and meretricious” (p. 118). Moreover, at the parties at which he plays Trimalchio, his guests “conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks” (pp. 49-50).
For such reasons, Gatsby does not initially convince Nick that he was “the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West” (San Francisco, he tells Nick) who was “educated at Oxford, because, all my ancestors have been educated there for many years” (p. 78). Instead, when Gatsby first tells Nick his tale, Nick has to “restrain my incredulous laughter” because the “very phrases were worn so threadbare” (p. 79). Moments later, even though his incredulity has become fascination, Nick observes that listening to Gatsby “was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines” (p. 80). In contrast, Daisy initially finds such pleasure in Gatsby’s wealth that she ignores the gaudier realities. For instance, moved by Gatsby’s display of expensive shirts, she sobs to him, “‘They’re such beautiful shirts. … It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before’” (p. 112).
Nick in time suspends his doubts and puts his faith in Gatsby, whereas Daisy, concerned primarily with her own needs, first accepts Gatsby’s persona and then, when it conflicts with those needs, turns away from it and from him. Tom, on the other hand, throughout the novel is skeptical about the role Gatsby plays. He scoffs at the notion that Gatsby went to Oxford, telling Nick and Jordan, “‘An Oxford man!… Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit” (p. 146). He also characterizes Gatsby as being “‘Mr. Nobody from Nowhere’” (p. 156), as someone who could only get “‘within a mile’ ” of Daisy by bringing “‘the groceries to the back door’” (p. 158), and as a “‘common swindler who’d have to steal the ring he put on her finger’” (p. 160).
Tom’s reading of Gatsby is an accurate one. Gatsby’s first mentor was Dan Cody, a “pioneer debauchee, who during one phase of American life brought back to the Eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon” (p. 121). Moreover, even though Daisy was “the first ’nice’ girl” Gatsby had everknown (p. 177), he “took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously—eventually he took Daisy one still October night” (p. 178), and he did so “under false pretenses” (p. 178).
Ironically, after he makes love to Daisy, Gatsby’s attitude toward her changes, for “now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail” (p. 179). It is significant that Gatsby’s commitment to Daisy is not merely the result of passion but rather one he makes deliberately, with the full knowledge that in so doing he will compromise his dream. Indeed, Gatsby equated kissing Daisy with embracing life’s transiency, for he “knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (p. 134; italics added).
Although Gatsby’s fears are well founded, his acknowledgment of Daisy’s mortality and his own is brief, for as he kisses her, he disregards what he knows and makes Daisy the embodiment of his dream. As Nick recounts it, “At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete” (p. 134).
In part, of course, Gatsby is drawn to Daisy because she already represents his dream to him, represents “the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves” (p. 179). In this regard, it is interesting to note that, in Nick’s mind at least, it is Daisy’s voice that holds Gatsby the most. Specifically, Nick defines her voice as being “a deathless song” (p. 116) of “inexhaustible charm” (p. 144), whereas it is Gatsby who identifies its distinctive quality, that it is “‘full of money’” (p. 144). But money and dreams are not enough to alter the reality of time’s movement, for Daisy has created a life separate from Gatsby, a reality that Gatsby has difficulty accepting. For instance, when Daisy introduces Gatsby to her child, Nick observes, “Afterward he kept looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before” (p. 140).
Gatsby’s response to the changes that time has brought to Daisy’s life is to try “‘to fix everything just the way it was before’” (p. 133). He wants Daisy to tell Tom that she had never loved him. He also wants “to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago” (p. 133). By such actions, Nick believes, Gatsby hopes to “recover something, some idea ofhimself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy,” for since Daisy married Tom, Gatsby’s “life had been confused and disordered” (p. 133).
But ultimately Daisy cannot disregard the realities of her life, and so, when Gatsby insists that she tell Tom that she has “never loved him” (p. 159), Daisy breaks down. In a deeply emotional moment, she recognizes, perhaps for the first time, that her relationship with Gatsby is not merely a romantic gesture, not merely the playing out of an old fantasy, but an action that has serious consequences. In this moment, Nick describes her as looking at Jordan and him “with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing—and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all” (p. 158). Nevertheless, Daisy tries to reconcile her life with Tom with her love for Gatsby. As Nick tells it, “‘Oh, you want too much!’ she cried to Gatsby. 1 love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.’ She began to sob helplessly. ’I did love him once—but I loved you too’” (p. 159).
In the hours that follow the scene in the Plaza Hotel, Daisy, at the wheel of Gatsby’s car, runs over and kills Myrtle Wilson. She also fails to return to the scene of the accident. Gatsby, whose immediate thoughts are only with Daisy, makes the decision to help her avoid responsibility for her actions. In addition, worried about Tom’s reactions to the episode in the Plaza, Gatsby waits outside the Buchanan home in case Daisy needs help, maintaining what Nick defines as a sacred vigil. Nick, on the other hand, understands that Daisy and Tom have restored some sort of intimacy. After looking in their window, he observes, “anybody would have said that they were conspiring together” (p. 175). In short, he recognizes that Daisy has betrayed Gatsby and that Gatsby’s illusions have been shattered, that he now is “watching over nothing” (p. 175).
If, as Nick believes, Gatsby recognizes Daisy’s betrayal, his awareness is sadly ironic. If Gatsby has come to terms with reality and let go of his dream, he is—for the first time since he began loving Daisy—facing life with all its pain. But Wilson, his own illusions about his marriage to Myrtle shattered, ends both Gatsby’s life and his own.
In many ways, Daisy is like Gatsby. At crucial moments in herlife, she deliberately chooses to embrace certain illusions and play certain roles as a way of creating for herself a sense of meaning and purpose and as a way of coping with “the pressure of the world outside” (p. 181). Restless because Gatsby is still in Europe with the army after World War I, Daisy becomes engaged to Tom because
all the time something within her was crying for a decision. She wanted her life shaped now, immediately—and the decision must be made by some force—of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality—that was close at hand. (p. 181)
Daisy appears to have contained her feelings about leaving Gatsby for Tom. As far as Nick knows, she exhibits emotion only once, in a tearful and drunken episode the night before her wedding. It is as though her choice to marry Tom and to conform to the expectations of their social world has made her cynical. In short, even though Daisy’s smile, like Gatsby’s, reassures and her very presence promises excitement, she does not possess Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” (p. 2). Perhaps for that reason she is more successful than Gatsby at playing roles and using gestures. For example, Nick dismisses the rumor that “Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her” as “an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming” (p. 11). And although Nick believes that Daisy’s confession to him of her unhappiness was insincere and part of “a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion” from him (p. 21), yet once again, Daisy can instantly charm him “by opening up again in a flower-like way” (p. 24).
But it is Daisy’s lack of purpose that most differentiates her from Gatsby (whose love for Daisy, in another irony, is what gives his life purpose). She and Jordan engage in talk that has “a bantering inconsequence” and “that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire” (p. 15). In several moments, Daisy’s laments of boredom echo the voices in the “A Game of Chess” section of Eliot’s The Waste Land: “ ’What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon… and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’” (p. 141). But even in this frame of mind, Daisy more often than not poses. For instance, she tells Nick, “‘You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow…..Everybody thinks so—the most advancedpeople. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything” (p. 21).
Daisy most reveals her ennui when she professes the hope that her daughter will be “‘a fool’” because “‘that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’” (p. 21). The wish suggests Daisy’s recognition of just how painful intelligence and consciousness can be. The context of her remark is also telling, for Daisy makes it within an hour of the child’s birth, after she “‘woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling’” because “Tom was God knows where’” (p. 21).
Eventually, because, as Jordan puts it, “‘Daisy ought to have something in her life’” (p. 96), she resumes her affair with Gatsby. But even though their relationship initially gives them and Nick the sense that “Ahead lay the scalloped ocean and the abounding blessed isles” (p. 141), it also disrupts Daisy’s life. For example, when Gatsby joins Tom, Jordan, Nick, and Daisy for lunch at East Egg, Daisy becomes distressed. Being “on the verge of tears,” and feeling that “‘it’s so hot… and everything’s so confused,’” she again wants to plan something. Just as when she married Tom, she hopes that taking some sort of action will allow her to mold “senselessness into forms” (p. 142).
The plan that the group devises—to rent a suite in the Plaza -does not bring the clarity or the order that Daisy seeks. Instead, the moment becomes charged with unhappy emotion. In the face of their confusion and heightened emotion, Daisy again chooses the course of action that she believes will bring her security: She turns to Tom. In so doing, she disregards what she has already painfully learned, that Tom, whose “sprees” she finds “revolting,” has from the earliest months of their marriage failed her. Within hours, she makes a series of equally important, self-interested, and destructive choices. She does not return to the scene of the accident. Nor does she tell either the police or Tom that she was driving the car, an act of omission that eventually leads to Gatsby’s death. She also does not call Gatsby the morning after the accident, does not attend his funeral, and does not send either a message or flowers.
The novel’s subplots and supporting characters offer their own variations on the theme of individuals choosing illusions and playing roles as a way of creating a sense of meaning and order in theirlives. Myrtle, for example, is driven by the version of the American dream that applies to women. Thus, although she believes, as Gatsby does, that success is measured in material possessions and a certain social role, like Daisy she assumes that those possessions and that role will be found in a relationship with a man who will be a provider, a caretaker, and, as she puts it, “‘a gentleman’” (p. 42).
Fitzgerald establishes the pattern almost immediately; Myrtle and Tom’s New York apartment, decorated in a French motif, is a sign to Myrtle of social status, just as Gatsby’s mansion on West Egg, “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy” (p. 6), symbolizes success to him. But as Gatsby’s mansion with its blue lawn does not achieve the desired authenticity or elegance, so Myrtle and Tom’s apartment is without grace: “The living-room was crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it, so that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles” (p. 34).
In this setting, Myrtle adopts unattractive gestures and loses the “intense vitality that had been so remarkable” (p. 36) in West Egg. As Nick describes it:
Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment, and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air. (p. 36)
Myrtle, like Gatsby, is ultimately the victim of illusions. Although she believes that she and Tom will marry, he clearly has no such intention. Indeed, Tom makes it clear that Myrtle’s place in his life is tangential when they have a violent fight at their party over whether or not she should be allowed to say Daisy’s name. When she insists on doing so, Tom breaks her nose.
Jordan, in contrast, knows which role is best for her to play and exactly how to play it. Nick finds this role attractive: As he puts it, “Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me” (p. 11). To sustain her role, however, Jordan avoids “clever, shrewd men” because, Nick believes, “she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible” (p. 71). Jordan needs that sort of safety because she is “incurably dishonest” (p. 71), a trait that Nick excuses because he sees it as an appropriate coping device for a woman:
She wasn’t able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body. (p. 71)
In addition to lying, Jordan is often careless. When Nick accuses her of being a rotten driver, she justifies her own behavior on the grounds that other people are careful. When Nick warns her that she might meet “‘somebody just as careless as yourself,’” Jordan responds easily: “‘I hope I never will. … I hate careless people. That’s why I like you’” (p. 72). But when Jordan become associated in Nick’s mind with Daisy and Tom and the chaos and destruction they create, he moves away from the relationship. For her part, whatever her anger and disappointment, Jordan maintains her pose. And so, when Nick meets her for the last time, he notes, “She was dressed to play golf, and I remember thinking she looked like a good illustration” (p. 213). But even though Jordan is able to create a personality that is made up of a series of successful gestures, her life ultimately seems both purposeless and empty.
Tom Buchanan, like Jordan, lives according to a certain social code. For example, his code allows him extramarital affairs but denies them to Daisy. Tom is, however, careful to choose women who are not of his and Daisy’s social class. When he and Myrtle go to New York together, he also defers “to the sensibilities of those East Eggers who might be on the train” by requiring Myrtle to sit “discreetly” in another car (p. 31). In Tom’s mind, he is merely going off on a “spree.” As he explains it, “‘I always come back, and in my heart I love [Daisy] all the time’” (p. 158).
Nick recognizes that Tom, like Daisy and Gatsby, found the most meaning and happiness in his past. As Nick explains it, Tom “had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven—a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savors of anti-climax” (p. 7). In The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald reveals that one of his own “juvenile regrets” was “not being big enough (or good enough) to play football in college.” Unlike Tom Buchanan, however, Fitzgerald as an adult relegated such fantasies to the level of “childish waking dreams” (p. 70). As an adult, Tom’slife seems empty. After he tells Nick of his worries that the white race will lose its “control of things” to other races, Nick thinks, “Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart” (p. 25). In a sense, Tom is a case of arrested adolescence. Even after the tragedies of the novel, Nick sees Tom as being childlike, as being someone who makes messes that others have to clean up (p. 216).
Nick’s choices, perhaps even more than those of the other characters, are affected by his sense of vulnerability, on the one hand, and his desire for order, on the other. Throughout the novel, his narrative is dominated by his ambivalence about whether it is better to embrace life’s possibilities or to try to escape from its uncertainties and dangers. And so, although events lead Nick to be increasingly wary of change and to yearn for a world that is “in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever,” he continues to celebrate Gatsby’s “romantic readiness” and his “extraordinary gift for hope” (p. 2).
Initially, Nick not only finds change exciting, he tends to couch his reactions in universal terms. For example, when he describes commuters returning home to West Egg in twilight, he thinks, “It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air” (p. 115). When he watches “the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees,” he reveals, “I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (p. 5). Jordan too seems to share Nick’s sentiments when, later in the novel, she rebukes Daisy for being “morbid” and tells her, “‘Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall’” (p. 142).
Nick also recognizes that he “began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye” (p. 69). In addition, he finds pleasure in the rich fantasy life that New York offers:
I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. (p. 69)
Nick is unquestionably drawn to Daisy and Gatsby because each offers him a similar sense of life’s promise and, not incidentally, of his own worth as well. He is attracted to the “promise” in Daisy’s voice “that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour” (p. 11). He finds her voice “thrilling,” perhaps because, like life itself, it seems to be “an arrangement of notes that will never be played again” (p. 11). Daisy’s smile is equally appealing because it makes Nick believe “that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see” (p. 11). Nick is attracted to Gatsby for similar reasons. He sees “something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life. … it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again” (pp. 2-3). Moreover, in Gatsby’s smile, as in Daisy’s and in the smiles of the women about whom he fantasizes, Nick finds a sense of his own value:
It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. (p. 58)
There are, nevertheless, many moments in which Nick feels alienated from the world around him. Sometimes he deliberately chooses that stance. For example, on the opening page of the novel, he acknowledges that he has always been uncomfortable with too much intimacy, recalling that he has frequently “feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity” in the face of “intimate revelations.” At other times, he regrets his stance of being “without,” believing that, by such distance, he is wasting life itself. Once again, in a passage that echoes The Waste Land, Nick extends his own feelings to others:
At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. (p. 69)
In such moments of discontent, Nick especially seems to need a sense of order. After his experiences during World War I, he decides that “instead of being the warm centre of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe.” His response to such feelings of disorientation are to choose the path that “everybody I knew” had chosen: moving to New York and entering the bond business (p. 3). The choice is without risk, for both his aunts and uncles concur with it, and his father agrees to support him for a year.
Nick, however, becomes increasingly unsettled as events force him to move beyond thoughts about life’s promise and bring him face to face with its harsher realities. For example, when he learns of Tom’s affair with Myrtle, he feels “confused and a little disgusted” (p. 25). He also assumes that Daisy will share his reaction, observing, “It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms” (p. 25). When Myrtle’s sister tells him that Daisy won’t give Tom a divorce because she is Catholic, Nick is “a little shocked at the elaborateness of the lie” (p. 40). And when Daisy attends one of Gatsby’s parties for the first time, Nick sees it through her eyes and feels “an unpleasantness in the air, a pervading harshness that hadn’t been there before” (p. 126).
After the scene in the Plaza, when Daisy, Gatsby, and Tom display such raw emotion, Nick reacts even more intensely. Now he is explicit that he sees change as being not exciting but dangerous. Shed of his own illusions about Gatsby’s past and also about Daisy’s ability to be worthy of Gatsby’s dream, Nick remembers that the day marks his thirtieth birthday and thinks, “Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade” (p. 163).
Such negative feelings prompt Nick to decide that “human sympathy has its limits” (p. 163). As Tom drives Nick and Jordan back to East Egg, Nick feels remote from Tom and from his heightened emotions. For the moment at least, he turns to Jordan, who, “unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age” (p. 163). He also continues to think of the future as threatening, not exciting. In his mind, the only promise he finds in his birthday is “the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair” (p. 163).
Nick’s premonitions about the dangers and the loneliness of the future prove apt. Within a day, Daisy has killed Myrtle Wilson in a hit-and-run accident; George Wilson—led by Tom to believe that Gatsby had been driving “the death car”—has murdered Gatsby and then killed himself; and Nick has become estranged from his friends. In fact, after the accident, “Feeling a little sick” and wanting to be alone, Nick refuses Jordan’s invitation to come into the Buchanan’s house, thinking, “I’d be damned if I’d go in; I’d had enough of all of them for one day, and suddenly that included Jordan too” (p. 171). Tom and Daisy’s actions after the accident are especially offensive to Nick. Aware that their carelessness and their refusal, both individually and together, to assume responsibility for their actions and their relationships have led to the deaths, his indictment is severe:
It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. … (p. 216)
The night of Myrtle’s death, Nick cannot sleep because, as he tells it, “I tossed half-sick between grotesque reality and savage, frightening dreams” (p. 176). In other words, neither reality unadorned by illusion nor illusion itself offers an escape from feelings of vulnerability. Soon, however, Nick decides that it is the East that is “haunted” for him, “distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction” (p. 213). In his mind, West Egg is especially disturbing. It remains in his “more fantastic dreams” as “a night scene by El Greco”—“grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon” (p. 212) in which wealth is irrelevant in the face of the lack of order and caring.
To escape this world where reality is grotesque and where even nature is not nurturing but threatening, Nick decides to go homeagain. Disregarding his feelings about the East’s “superiority” to the Midwest and ignoring his sense that the Midwest is a place of “bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old” (p. 212), Nick decides to return home. Not unexpectedly, his need for order persists. Even though he has come to think that he may be “half in love” (p. 214) with Jordan, he ends their relationship because he “wanted to leave things in order and not just trust that obliging and indifferent sea to sweep my refuse away” (p. 213). Nick is also explicit that he no longer wants complexity or to be a “well-rounded man” (p. 5); instead, he has decided that “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window after all” (p. 5).
In other words, like Gatsby and Daisy, Nick makes a deliberate decision to embrace his past even though he knows that such a choice is itself based on illusions and romantic memories of childhood. Remembering those moments, particularly the train rides when he returned home from prep school and believed that he and his friends were “unutterably aware of our identity with this country,” Nick elaborates:
That’s my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am a part of that… (pp. 211-12)
Nick once again thinks of his own choices in universal terms. As he reflects on the events of the novel, he looks out on Long Island Sound and imagines the vision “that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes” (p. 217). That flowering, he knows, like Daisy’s, existed only “for a transitory enchanted moment” (p. 217) before it, too, gave way to reality. He also knows that the reality itself was shaped by the attempt of individuals like Gatsby to translate their dream into material terms, but whose flaw, like Gatsby’s, was that they too served a “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (p. 118) that devastated “the fresh green breast of the new world” (p. 217).
Nick’s view that America has destroyed its dream in the attempt to make that dream a reality contributes to his belief that the vision of the Dutch sailors brought humanity “face to face for the lasttime in history with something commensurate to [their] capacity for wonder” (pp. 217-18). But even as Nick seems resigned to that loss of hope, he continues to yearn for it, perhaps as much as he yearns for a sense of order. Even though he knows that neither Gatsby’s dream nor Daisy—as the incarnation of that dream—is worthy of Gatsby’s capacity for wonder, he remains in awe of “the colossal vitality of [Gatsby’s] illusion” (p. 116). As he explains after the fact:
It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (p. 97)
Eventually, Nick shifts his focus from Gatsby to a more universal one and allies Gatsby’s lost dream to America’s dream and to his own. Moreover, both Nick’s words and his actions, especially his final reverie about Gatsby and his decision to return to the Midwest, underscore his understanding of just how compelling illusions rooted in the past can be and, at the same time, just how destructive it is for individuals to try to locate meaning in those illusions. As he says about Gatsby:
He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (p. 182)
Ultimately, Nick takes away from his experience in West Egg what he seems to believe is also the lesson of the American experience: that moments of hope and promise and wonder can be found only in the past, that—except in the imagination—the past is irrecoverable, that the present brings with it only the betrayal ofdreams, and that the conscious individual must nevertheless continue to hope and to struggle.
The dilemma that Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby face is, of course, a human one as well as an American one: whether to embrace the dreams of youth and keep alive the hopes bred in innocence or to face the reality that such dreams are inevitably elusive and illusory because they are part of the past. In the end, of course, as the novel demonstrates, neither the choice of embracing illusions nor the effort to live without them suffices. And in that light, the best path for the conscious individual seems in fact to be that which Fitzgerald outlined a decade later in The Crack-Up: that such an individual must try to function in the face of “the contradictions between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future” and, at the same time, accept the paradox inherent in doing so.
Susan Resneck Parr is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tulsa. She is the author of The Moral of the Story: Literature, Values, and American Education and of numerous articles about modern literature.
Published in New Essays on The Great Gatsby, Ed. by M. J. Bruccoli (Cambridge University Press, 1985).